Is the Warrantless Search of Cell Phones Still A Big Deal?

On March 1, 2012, the Internet was up in arms about a court case decision on February 29th that gave the police the right to search a cell phone without issuing a warrant. Over a month and a half later, the discussion has died down and not much is being said about the ruling.

What Happened?

Law enforcement authorities had reason to believe that Abel Forez-Lopez was a supplier of illegal drugs to another drug dealer, who in turn had a customer who was a paid police informant. During the delivery of the drugs, police arrested Lopez and his accomplices, seizing the cell phone he had on his person and another two left in his vehicle.

At the scene of the drug sale, an officer searched each cell phone for its number, which the government later used to subpoena three months of call history from the telephone company. The data from the call history included calls between Lopez, the dealers and other conspirators. At trial the government sought to introduce the call history from the phones into evidence.

Lopez’s attorney argued any information gathered from the cell phones was an unwarranted illegal search and should be inadmissible in court. The officers said the reason for the immediate search was because they felt the phone data could be remotely wiped and didn’t want to lose any potential evidence that might be crucial to their case.

In his final decision, Judge Richard Posner, decided the evidence was admissible because the search of the cell phone was limited to finding its number and not a search of the contents. He also wrote that obtaining the information from the phone company was not considered a search because by subscribing to the wireless service, the user is deemed to surrender any privacy interest he may have had in his phone number.

Are You Worried?

I wondered whether this was something to get excited over and at first I thought it was. But after reading through the judge’s decision, I can see why the discussion has died down. Technology is constantly forcing us to look at certain situations in a new light. If the search of the phone would have gone deeper (files, apps, etc.), I would certainly have an issue with the decision and how searches of this manner could be abused. The officers seemed to have collected enough evidence before the arrest and the fact that they knew to search only for the numbers, leaves me to believe they knew what they were doing.

So what do you think? Should we be worried about our privacy and law enforcement asking to search our mobile devices?

Read the court’s final decision here.


  1. says

    If he would have had a password on the phone then they wouldn’t have been able to do it and he didn’t have to tell them ether. I might agree with the police on this one though I do agree that a cell phone is private property.

  2. Peter says

    I consider my phone to be private property so the legality of an arresting officer to legally search it without a warrant and use that information against me is an issue. Imagine, if you will, walking back from the mailbox and the police stop you. In your hand is your mobile phone bill. They grab the envelop and open it to obtain your phone number, and just your number. They then use that information to pull your phone records for the past three months and use that call log as part of the evidence against you. They say that they had to take the envelop and open it right then and there in fear that you would light it on fire and destroy the evidence before they could get an actual warrant to see it.

    On the other hand, it just shows one more reason to lock your phone with a code. If the arrested individual had done that, they would not have been able to gather the number unless that person gave the police the code, which would have been giving up all rights to the information located within.

    On the third hand, the police could have just placed a phone call to one of their own phones and gotten the number that way.

    Back in the pre-historic landline days, you could always just dial a code from your landline phone to get the telephone number. I wonder if there is any legal precedence around an arresting officer using that capability to get a phone number for later record searches. Do they have that capability in the cellular world? Of course, just because a number was called from a specific phone doesn’t mean that person placed it. Maybe he handed his phone to a friend who was actually the “dealer”.